Thursday, January 14, 2016

L'annee dernier, rabbit in the headlights

 Every Tuesday that I in France I attend, as some of you will know,  the local primary school, to teach English. Its what started me on this blog and its what continues to motivate many of the ideas & observations about our life in France, deep in the Loire countryside.

You see, as those of you who are teachers will know,  having an audience of eager, interested, but unforgiving students, be they five years or twenty five, is a sure way to enhance your own learning. The old adage that, 'if you want to learn something well, try teaching it', may sound odd , but is a real truism; nothing puts you more on your metal than the prospect of having to explain it in detail to somebody else. This is  especially so, when that somebody has the enquiring mind of a student, particularly a primary age student!

Children do not necessarily have the social niceties to go along with what you are saying, they ask the awkward  question and have a lack self consciousness. Both singly and collectively they, like water, seek out the flaws. This is not to say I think 'les elves' are scheming to undermine my lesson, it is just their natural state; they are in a learning environment all day, questioning, willing to make mistakes, self driven to understand and they don't take 'prisoners'.

 So nearly six year on from my initial uncertain visit to the school I was in again this week; teaching to the topic of 'The Human Body'. Now this could be a perilous area if I were back teaching in the Secondary sector, open to all sorts of anxieties and, even at the simplest level, could evoke a potential mine field of 'awkward or embarrassing' questions. But in that small rural classroom it was a delight, the children were interested, the subject visually engaging and all became  engrossed in the activities. From word matching & action games and worksheets to illustration I seemed to have geared the lesson right. My French explanations, my English questions all seemed to go down well.

Great I thought maybe I'm actually cracking this language, adapting my teaching and understanding the cultural nuances? I'd got through my hour and a half, the children seemed to have absorbed the key words & were prepared to verbalise in  English, so I packed up my things and prepared to go.

Now my years ago after my first basic French course, having travelled through the country over years, I finally felt I was getting a handle on things...its always when things go wrong. On a campsite somewhere near Calais, feeling quietly confident in my day to day French, I was greeted by an elderly lady commenting on the weather; "Il faire beau?" she said ( it becomes sunny). I panicked, what do I answer, is there a set reply. So what did I answer? What did my linguistic brain come up with. "Trois", yes like a rabbit in the headlights I froze and for some unaccountable reason said  the number 'three'! Since that day I have always been aware that just sometimes, for some unaccountable reason my 'French Brain' is quite likely to just malfunction.

And what happened at the end of my successful English lesson, just when I was feeling quietly confident? Well, I meant to say " a la semaine prochaine" ( See you next week), but what came out was " l'annee derniere" ( last year)! Both the maitresse and the children suddenly looked at me, quizzical, ' what does she mean? Is she telling us something?" . No just rabbit in the headlights syndrome!

What is it they say, 'pride comes before a fall', well all I can say is, "Tois"...Oh bugger!

Whats in a phrase...tellement!

Strikes me people come out with the funniest things when you least expect them. Sometimes they're known sayings, like this summer when a friend staying with us announced that, on her journey through France, she was, "So hungry I could eat the leg of the lamb of God". Or sometimes they're impromptu, as later in the holiday and out walking the beautiful Colmont river, she was desperate to use the loo. On spying a workers Portaloo nearby, she quipped, "Well any port a loo in a storm will do" and quickly disappeared inside.

There's a natural humour in some phrases, indeed some people and some regions/ cities are known for their hard humour, probably borne out of hard times. Hence my husband, a good Stoke on Trent Lad, from a family known for its witticism and sharp phrases announced that he had," no spell check on his mouth". And was heard to announce to a neighbour that, "me plums are ripening" (plenty of euphemism there) and then ask, "Is your fosse backing up"...oh er missus, sounds like an old 'Carry On' film.
In France we share some  phrasal commonalities that have been adopted by the English language. We assert, 'c'est la vie', use an ' aide memoire' and carry an 'attaché' case' with a certain 'je ne sis quoi'. So it seems strange when we hear them in their original tongue, with their correct pronunciation. At a recent soiree for a group of French friends I was amused to hear myself sounding like the fictional detective Hercule Poirot when I exclaimed 'Exactement' and curious to realise how many words had links with what I already knew, both in learnt , absorbed or fictional French.

Similarly our well known phrases sometimes have Gaelic equivalents like 'bien dans sa peu' ,which I learnt was to be at ease in ones own skin and 'petit poisson deviendra grand', a different and fishy take on 'from little oaks mighty acorns grow'. Yes I still struggle with the grammar, stumble over the conjugation of the verbs, but I now feel more at ease in the language, happier in the communication and loving the challenge despite  the confusions.

But then as Graham Robb recounts in his book ' The Discovery of France' 2007, relating to Bretons within living memory trying to learn French,
" The French language is a language whose words were like half empty boxes and you're not even quite what's in them" ,,,,je adore!